Despite a string of crashes near the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and Airport Road about 4 miles west of Grand Forks, a University of Minnesota traffic expert believes the small forest of signs, plastic drums, temporary stop lights and other safety measures set up there while crews resurface the highway is set up correctly.

The cones and other traffic control devices are laid out according to the project’s traffic control plans, and an electronic sign warning about the intersection goes above what minimum requirements call for, according to John Hourdos, the director of the university's Minnesota Traffic Observatory. Hourdos reviewed a year-long summary of accidents at the intersection, state project plans for the construction work, plus several dozen photos taken July 7 by a Herald reporter of the intersection and its approaches from the east and west along Highway 2 and from the north along Airport Road.

“I don't see any smoking guns here regarding the work zone setup and control,” he said.

But the intersection nonetheless has a reputation for being unsafe, at least while it’s under construction, and a string of accidents -- one of which killed a man -- hasn’t dispelled that idea.

On June 1, an Emerado woman heading west on Highway 2 rear-ended a sedan that was stopped at the intersection’s traffic light, pushing the sedan into an SUV in front of it. About two hours later, the same accident was essentially repeated when a Grand Forks man driving east on the highway reportedly rear-ended a van, pushing it into a station wagon.

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The next morning, an eastbound semi truck rear-ended another vehicle, causing a chain-reaction of collisions that killed an adult male and injured 12 more people. About eight minutes before the accident, North Dakota Highway Patrol officers said police were called about a reckless semi heading east in the construction zone.

The woman in the westbound rear-end accident has since been charged with a DUI, and the man in the eastbound one was cited for following too closely. North Dakota court records indicate that the semi driver has not been charged with a crime related to the crash as of Friday morning, July 16.

“There are no visibility issues or any reason for missing the signal given all the advance warnings,” Hourdos told the Herald, referring to the semi truck accident.

Still, conditions on a highway that's under construction -- squeezing four lanes of traffic into two, for instance -- can prevent drivers from bailing their car into a median or a ditch if they're on the verge of an accident, and that can turn near-misses into collisions, fender benders into more serious accidents, and so on, Hourdos explained.

"There's less freedom to avoid mishaps," he said. "So you need to have it slowed down. But people don't always pay attention to the speed limit, and what situations that could have been forgiven or had a minimal outcome before, now end up in situations like (the semi accident)."

18 crashes in the past year

Between July 1, 2020 and July 11 of this year, the state highway patrol logged 17 crashes at or near the intersection of Highway 2 and Airport Road. The fatal accident on June 2 is not part of that list, a spokesperson said, because it is still under investigation.

Of those 17 crashes, 14 are rear-end collisions, two are sideswipes, and one happened in mid-December 2020 when a Devils Lake man driving a car east on Highway 2 tried to turn south, lost control on the icy road, and slid into a car pointed northward that was stopped at the red light. Of the rear-end collisions, 11 occurred in a work zone, though.

“When people say an intersection is unsafe, usually I say people’s driving habits are unsafe, is my soapbox answer back to them,” Nick West, a Grand Forks County engineer who heads its highway department, said when asked if he suspects there are any design problems at Hwy. 2 and Airport Road. “If people drive and follow the laws of the road, there’s nothing wrong with that intersection.”

He suggested the spate of accidents there is the result of several factors: traffic is backed up farther, speed limits are lower, and the “geometry” of the intersection is different while the roadway is under construction. West said the only way to have zero accidents near the construction site would be to build a temporary road for cars to use while the existing one is under construction, then tear the temporary one up afterward.

“As long as humans drive cars,” he said, “there’s danger.”